BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A study by communication researchers at the
University at Buffalo confirms what was made evident by the very
public Google-Chinese government dispute over Internet censorship:
the fact that China's cyberculture is changing and growing rapidly
is no harbinger of political freedom and open speech in that
"Discourse Behind the Forbidden Realm: Internet surveillance and
its implications on China's blogosphere" was published in the most
recent volume of the journal Telematics and Informatics (Volume 27,
Issue 1), by noted communication researcher Junhao Hong, PhD, UB
professor of communication, whose current research involves the
Google/China clash. His co-author is UB doctoral student Shaojung
The study responds to claims that widespread use of blogs
threatens Chinese government control over democratic discourse,
free speech and civil rights in China's traditionally closed
"Some hold that advanced technology and the free flow of
information make the Internet uncontrollable," Hong says, "but
there has apparently been no diminution in Chinese government
surveillance, and Internet censorship could continue to be one of
the most pervasive barriers to regime change."
It is widely acknowledged that Internet regulation (or
repression) is more extensive and advanced in China than in any
other nation. The government employs a broad range of laws and
regulations to block website content and monitor access of
individuals to the Internet. It expects branches of state-owned
ISPS, organizations and international companies, including Yahoo,
Google and Microsoft, to implement these measures.
Hong and Wang acknowledge that "the rapidly transforming
blogosphere could be a catalyst for social change and organized
political discourse." However, they add that the battle between the
Chinese authoritarian government, which wants censorship and
supremacy, and Internet activists seeking to overcome governmental
control, will continue for the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, Hong says, "Although the change in China's
cyberculture is, like all change, inherently contagious and
continuous, it is not likely to overcome government regulations
that intimidate users."
One reason for this, he says, is that China's blog regulations
require the registration of all noncommercial and personal websites
and blogs. This demonstrates that while China encourages economic
openness, it maintains strict control over politics and
Hong points out that blog service providers, which have
bloggers' real names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail
addresses, are required by the government to monitor content and
delete illegal and "bad" information in a timely manner or
terminate service to the offending blogger.
"This arrangement, made official in a 2007 pact signed by at
least 20 major blog service providers including Yahoo Inc. and
Microsoft Corp.," Hong says, "is enough in itself to quell online
He points out that the Internet itself implements technological
architectures that mine information about human behavior and
preferences. That information is fed back to those overseeing
cyberspace activities, making their oversight much easier.
"It is the very openness of the Internet that permits the
tracing of every online activity. So government monitoring of the
system has a great impact on the Chinese population and provokes
strong fear of arrest and imprisonment," Hong says.
"The effect of this social surveillance is the depoliticization
of communication by self-censorship," he says, "meaning that at
this point China's blogosphere, in and of itself, has limited value
as a medium for free speech, even for the one percent of the
population that blogs. Few Chinese bloggers discuss 'pure' politics
online. Instead, as in the West, they concentrate on celebrity
gossip and self disclosure."
The authors acknowledge that the Chinese government's ability to
impose Internet censorship is limited, but say its ability to
conduct Internet monitoring is not. "Since the openness of the
Internet allows the tracing of every online activity," Hong says,
"fear of arrest and imprisonment ensures that the impact of that
monitoring is likely to be strong. So at the moment, at least, the
Internet is not a real threat to authoritarian regimes."
In fact, Hong and Wang conclude that the growth of the Chinese
blogosphere -- from 230,000 to 16 million in only six years --
facilitates surveillance of the kind used by the Chinese government
to control free expression.
Hong is a research associate of the Fairbank Center for China
Studies at Harvard University and a senior research fellow of the
Center of Communication for Sustainable Social Change at University
He is the author of several books including "The
Internationalization of Television in China" (1998) and, with
Lawrence Sherlick, "Internet Popular Culture and Jewish Values"
(2008). His most recent publication is a research article titled
The Great Fire Wall and China's Four Modernization Campaign in
Chinese Walls in Time and Space" published by Cornell University.
His current research includes an analysis of the case of Google
versus China and a research project on the Internet governance
battle between government control and the public's anti-control